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82 more to be built in five years covering most parts of China
China plans to build more feeder airports, although many small airports continue to lose money, according to the aviation authorities.
Li Jiaxiang, head of Civil Aviation Administration of China, told a news conference on Friday that a guideline on the industry, issued by the State Council this month, has highlighted civil aviation as "a national strategic industry".
According to the guideline, China will build 82 new airports during the 2011-15 period, and construct a national air transport network that will cover 89 percent of the total population by 2020.
Recent reports suggested that about 130 airports in China registered a total loss of more than 2 billion yuan ($314 million) last year, and some have suggested that no more should be built as losses continue.
But Li disagrees, saying the role of small airports is indispensable to local economic development. Feeder airports mainly serve cargo planes and smaller flights.
According to statistics provided by the Ministry of Finance, investment in an airport can produce an output eight times of that amount for a local economy.
Li cited Mohe, the northernmost county in China, as an example.
The county — popular with tourists who travel there particularly to see the famous natural light display in the sky, the aurora borealis, or northern lights — was difficult to reach for many tourists until an airport was opened to traffic in 2008, he said.
The airport, with fewer than 60 employees and annual operating costs of 20 million yuan, has also become an important link for local business traffic as well as tourists.
Li cited local government officials as saying that the airport was the reason the county gained more than 300 million yuan of annual income.
Airport: Demand for flights soars in China
Huang Min, director of the infrastructure department under the National Development and Reform Commission, said that the social benefits of local airports cannot be counted on an airport's financial profit and loss account.
"Most of the new airports to be built are feeder airports in central and western regions as well as in remote areas," Huang said.
He added that by the end of 2015, there will be 230 airports for passenger and cargo transport open to traffic, up from the current 182.
And, 80 percent of China's population will be able to use an airport within 100 kilometers by then, he said.
China lags behind many other major countries in terms of the total number of airports.
The United States, for example, has about 19,000 airports, while Brazil has about 700.
Another problem is that many airports built years ago are now deemed too small, he said, and plans are in place to expand and rebuild 101 airports from 2011 to 2015 to meet the soaring demand.
China's civil aviation industry has been developing at an average double-digit growth over the past three decades. It is now the world's second-biggest air transport network, according to Li.
Last year, a fleet of 1,853 planes carried 290 million passengers and 5.52 million metric tons of cargo.
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